As a 90s kid, I grew up on blue mascara, bright pink blusher and foundation for the lips. Sometimes I’d steal a bit of my mum’s Touche Éclat for hormonal spots, or use her £8.99 Max Factor 2000 Calorie Volumising Mascara if I was having an especially gorgeous day. Suffice to say, I didn’t look so fresh. But neither did anyone else my age. We were all in the same boat of body glitter, brown lipstick, and Lancôme Juicy Tubes.
By contrast, my 15-year-old cousin Gabriella has grown up with YouTube beauty tutorials at her fingertips, and, for better or worse, Instagram make-up videos by influencers who are apparently all ‘ob-sess-ed’ with some new product or other. Gabriella is not only doing her make-up better than I was as a teenager, but her make-up skills put my 27-year-old self to shame. She is far from alone. Thousands of Gen Z-ers spend much more money on top make-up brands like Fenty and Charlotte Tilbury than I ever have, with recommendations mostly sourced from beauty influencers on social media – the likes of Huda Kattan, NikkieTutorials, Carli Bybel and Kandee Johnson, for example, have huge Gen Z followings. Teens’ YouTube and Instagram-honed expertise means that many are doing make-up in their bedroom mirrors at the level of a department store counter. Even my 59-year-old mum asks her young nieces, “Can you show me how to do my bronzer?”
I find myself similarly in thrall to Gen Z's beauty skills. At a family roast dinner last month, I studied Gabriella's make-up from across the table, in awe of her perfectly placed highlighter and flawlessly blended eye make-up. Somehow, she'd achieved that dewy, natural, fresh look that I have tried (and failed) to make happen for the past ten years.
When I ask Gabriella how she feels about make-up, she tells me: “What I love about make-up is that it can hide your insecurities to make you more confident about yourself, and can portray different emotions. My beauty inspirations are Carli Bybel, Taylor Hill and Bella Hadid. I also love the Korean glass skin routine.”
The Korean glass skin routine? I think if someone had asked my 15-year-old self what my beauty aspirations were, it would have been less “a six-step skincare regime,” and more “yeah, so I wanna look glittery.” Either way, inspired by Gabriella's seriousness, I decide to swap my millennial make-up for a Gen Z beauty routine for a whole fortnight, putting aside my fears of looking too overdone or having to give over half my morning to contouring.
My usual make-up regime is pretty low maintenance, consisting of about three products blunted down from overuse. My first step, therefore, is to buy a bunch of products Gabriella swears by. These include Revolution’s Prime Set Glow (a make-up setting spray), Winnie Beau London lip gloss, No7 skin illuminator, beauty blenders, Charlotte Tilbury mascara, Makeup Obsession setting powder, No7 blusher and products in the Elemis Superfood skincare range.
Gabriella also very sweetly sends me a 14-minute step-by-step video showing how she applies her make-up. I follow her trick of putting concealer and illuminator on what seems like every part of my face: brows, upper cheeks, lower cheeks, nose, forehead and jawline. It feels like I am contouring myself to death. Next, I’m instructed to mix a tiny bit of aloe vera into the No7 illuminator and apply it as a base (this primes the skin and makes it extra glow, Gabriella explains), then pat concealer with my fingers onto the places I want to “highlight and lift.”
Gabriella also uses a Tangle Teaser hair brush to press contour powder against her make-up and create a freckle-like print, for “a cute summery look”. It blows my millennial mind but when I try this creative hack, I fail miserably. My face does not look cute nor freckly, but more like someone has thrown a Croc at it.
While I use every product Gabriella recommends, and try my best to mimic her application techniques, it’s harder than it looks. I find myself struggling with making it look like I'm not wearing that much make-up, while wearing a lot of make-up. I'm especially impressed with how Gabriella knows exactly how much product to apply, and to precisely which area of her face. It's a masterful art form – the dabs, the finger pats and her seemingly instinctive knowledge of exactly where to put concealer, illuminator and bronzer. Just when I thought I had the trial-and-error of my teenage make-up years out the way, it feels like I am starting all over again.
Former MAC makeup artist and beauty expert Jade Williams tells me that unlike the makeup styles of the 90s and 2000s, Gen Z trends include “an emphasis on skin care and priming the skin,” as well as “eco-consciousness, pops of neon on eyes either as eyeliner or washes of colour, and creamy glossy textures for contouring and highlighting.”
Williams has lived through three decades of beauty trends, and tells me that all of her Gen Z customers ask for the type of face my cousin wears: feathered brows, smokey Bambi eyes and contoured nose, cheeks and chin, to make them look as small and chiseled as possible.
It’s a face we’ve seen on most of the celebrities whose images we're bombarded with constantly – from TOWIE stars to the Kardashian sisters. But if I’m being honest, when I'm wearing this style of make-up, I just don’t feel like myself. Although I receive compliments from friends, instead of popping out of the crowd because I have a bold, sexy face of make-up, I feel like the opposite is happening – like I merged in a sea of fellow rainbow fishes. I feel glamorous but I blend in. I quite like my unfashionable eyes, pointy chin and squishy nose, because I feel more like myself when those things aren’t hidden.
Whether you want to call it the Love Island face or the Instagram face, the make-up favoured by Gen Z makes everyone look the same, especially when filters and FaceTune are whacked on top. Individuality is supposedly championed throughout Instagram and yet, a lot of the time, the beauty looks we see on social media are eerily similar.
I’m cool with the fact that Gen Z are experts in beauty – but the main thing I’m taking away from trying out their make-up style is the hope that young girls, along with my beautiful cousin, see that it’s OK to embrace what makes their faces different too.